New research suggests musical talent and vision impairment are closely linked. High-profile and brilliant blind musicians such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli have long caused people to wonder if there is a link between music and blindness.
Now Professor Adam Ockelford, a musician and visiting research fellow at the Institute of Education, London, has some solid evidence.
He and his research team surveyed and visited visually impaired children who had been premature babies, at home and at school.
Working with around 40 blind children, as well as surveying parents, teachers and music therapists, the study showed that blind children are 4,000 times more likely to have perfect pitch — a traditional marker of exceptional musical ability — than their fully sighted peers.
The research, which also quizzed parents whose children were fully sighted, found that 48 per cent of blind children demonstrate significant interest in everyday sounds compared to 13 per cent of those with full sight. More than two-thirds of the blind and partially sighted children played at least one instrument, compared with 41 per cent of the sighted group.
Parents of the blind children reported that music was particularly important as a source of comfort, helping them to relax and express their emotions.
According to Ockelford, the reason is “the obvious one”. He explains: “In young babies, the brain is very mouldable, synapses grow and connections are made all the time.
In blind children, the areas of the brain involved in sight are not being used, but others, including those used for hearing, become much more important. The greater focus on auditory input makes the brain develop in a different way.”
Ockelford says he repeatedly found himself “astonished” by young children singing in perfect pitch during his research. “About 20 per cent of musicians have perfect pitch, and in the wider population it's about one in 10,000, but I was discovering these children singing beautifully in tune, time and time again,” he says.
“Perfect pitch isn't a condition for great musicianship, but it is necessary in the development of exceptional musicality among people with learning difficulties.” Ockelford says many blind people already use their awareness of pitch to help them overcome daily obstacles. ” Joshua Black, who was born prematurely at 32 weeks, is registered blind, with no sight in his right eye and only small amount of peripheral vision in his left eye. He plays the violin, trumpet and African drums as well as singing; he is academic, but music is his passion. “It helps me overcome everyday stress; when I'm upset I go to music,” Joshua says.
Joshua uses his perfect pitch to convert sounds into colours in his head. “If I hear an A note, in my head that's blue,” he says.
Ockelford says his research shows that music teachers should be more willing to make an effort with these children, especially as they are more likely to be talented. “There are still a lot of stereotypes around about children with disabilities being harder for music teachers to teach,” he says. Joshua's mother Clare Black agrees.
She found it “hugely difficult” to find a teacher for Joshua. “Joshua learns in a different way, mainly by ear — the Suzuki learning method has been the perfect way for him to learn the violin, for example.”
Ockelford says: “Although sheet music is available for blind children in braille, it's only useful for those who are very academically able.
“For those who have learning difficulties, learning music aurally can be a huge confidence boost.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010